Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Mama for Owen

The moment I saw the cover of A Mama for Owen, I knew I had to read this book. Is there anything more adorable than this mismatched pair? Then I heard the premise of the story and I rushed right out to pick it up. Not only is this an incredibly sweet story written by Marion Dane Bauer, but it is matched with incredibly adorable illustrations by John Butler. Oh and did I mention it's based on a true story?

The story follows Owen, a young hippopotamus who lives with his mother and family on the Sabaki River in Africa. Owen follows his mother everywhere and they often play hide-and-seek. When he is tired, he snuggles with his mother to take a nap. But his easy life is short lived. A tsunami comes and Owen and his family are washed out to sea. Owen survives and is swept back into shore, but no where near his river. His family is lost. Owen is unsure what to do until he finds a shape on the beach that is the same color as his mother. He settles down next to the lump and tries to fall asleep. The object is none other than a tortoise named Mzee. Mzee lets the young hippo curl up and slowly becomes a substitute mother for Owen.

The story is a fictionalized account of a true story that occurred right after the 2004 tsunami. In the real story the young hippo, who was less than a year old, was washed out to sea by the wave and when he was found was brought to a wildlife preserve and there met Mzee. But I think the changes made were perfect for this story. The tale could be very sad but Bauer infuses humor in to lighten the story. She describes Owen's mother (and Mzee) as "grayish-brown--or was she brownish-gray?" She adds images like Owen following his mother's stubby tail or playing hide-and-seek with Mzee. One of my favorite pages was one of the later ones. I love the humor of these lines. "And whenever Mzee takes a nap, tucked away inside his brownish-gray--or is it grayish-brown?--shell, Owen waits and waits and waits until he can find Mzee once more. Bauer does a wonderful job of creating a soft gentle rhyme of lines along with some pretty wonderful characters.

But it was John Butler's illustrations that originally drew my eye, and give this book the softness and cuteness that made my heart melt. Owen is simply adorable with his large soft eyes and innocent expressions. Mzee is a warm and sweet character who readers will fall in love with. His smiles and easy-going-nature will make readers cheer for this unlikely pair. The illustrations are done in acrylic paint and colored pencils and have a perfect palette. The book is filled with gentle yellows and oranges and everything is blended to produce soft images. The backgrounds are often just bits of color but the characters are much sharper. Emotions are clearly distinguishable on ever page. I have to admit that I got a bit chocked up reading this book. And with good reason. This is an incredibly sweet story and that fact that it is true, only makes it that much more wonderful. A great read-aloud and a perfect find for any animal lover.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Chester the Worldly Pig

I’m sure I’ve mentioned how much I love the animal stories of Bill Peet. Like a potato chip, I can’t just limit myself to one. I have already done a review of Huge Harold but Chester the Worldly Pig is just too good to pass up doing a review of. Like Wilbur, in Charlotte’s Web, this pig had me cheering for him as he attempted to make his own luck.

Like Wilbur, Chester decides that he doesn’t want to become bacon. He decides he doesn’t want to end up on anyone’s table. But instead of finding a helpful spider, Chester decides to make his own luck. He sees a poster for the circus and decides to learn a trick. He practices and practices and finally teaches himself how to balance on his snout on a fencepost. He runs away and joins the circus only to find out that they want to make him do his trick surrounded by hungry tigers. When he faints, he becomes a clown’s sidekick. But that’s not what Chester wanted either. So he runs away from the circus only to run straight into a bear. He is saved from the bear by three hobos, but they decide to eat the little pig. They stuff Chester into a sack and take him on the trains with him. He escapes from the hobos into the city. But danger lurks everywhere in the form of butchers. He leaves the city defeated and gives himself up to the next farmer he sees. The farmer starts to fatten the pig up for eating; but Chester is saved in the end by a passing carnival promoter. Chester didn’t even need his trick, his spots form a map of the world.

As always, I am enchanted by the characters in Bill Peet’s books. Through both the story and the illustrations, Peet is able to tell an exciting story with some very memorable animal characters. Unlike so many books for children, these are not animal characters acting like people. These are animals, who act like animals, who also happen to have great adventures. Chester is a determined little pig who ends up in a series of bad positions. He is not willing to just sit and wait to become dinner. Chester decides that he will solve his problem on his own. He works hard to improve at his trick and even though it doesn’t pan out, his determination just shows how he’s not afraid of hard work or a couple bruises. Even when things reach the point where he is resigned to being dinner, he decides to do it on his own terms. He plans to grow to as big as possible. He’s a pig who takes charge of his own situation. And a great character.

This book is drawn with Bill Peet’s typical style. Using only colored pencils and ink, Peet is able to create tons of emotions for his characters. We see Chester’s pride, his heartbreak, his determination, and his joy. The rest of the cast of characters is well done but it is the little pig that steals the show. The backgrounds in Peet’s books, often set in the forest or the country, are detailed without being overpowering. A couple of pen lines somehow become a field of wheat. The circus tent is a sea of faces, all done with a bit of colored pencil and excellent shading. Peet is a master when it comes to colored pencil. At a distance, a circus elephant seems grey, but get a bit closer and you can see all the colors that have been used to create the exact shade of grey. The books are filled with great scenes. Peet’s work always seems like he’s grabbed stills from an animated film. There is so much movement and color. Perhaps it is his film background. Another Peet masterpiece and a wonderful character.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Inventor McGregor

I’ve started this review about ten times now and keep stopping. I picked the story up on a whim and loved it. But so far I’m having a hard time capturing exactly what I want to say about this wonderfully little story about following your happiness.

This is the story of Hector McGregor who everyone calls Inventor McGregor. He is called that because of his amazing ability to invent whatever is needed. He invents barking mailbags so the postman won’t be attacked by a neighborhood dog. He invents an alarm clock that pushes people off their pillow (for those frequent snoozers). He invents things like robotic arms, trampoline shoes, floating bags, and peppermint pens. He can invent anything. When not inventing, he lives with his cheerful wife, five children, and a hen named Hattie. He goes for walks and paints and plays the fiddle and is very happy. One day he is discovered by the Society of Inventors and is given a laboratory in the city and a job. He reluctantly heads for the city to start inventing full time. But he can’t think of anything to invent. Days, weeks, months go by and he hasn’t invented anything. He sits in his empty room all day and can’t think of a single thing. People stop calling him Inventor McGregor. As the weeks go by he becomes more depressed until he sees two men painting outside the window. He rushes out and grabs two paintbrushes and he paints. He paints his wife, his children, and Hattie. He paints the sun and the meadow. And then he leaves the city, rushes home, and goes back to his days of singing, painting, walking, and…inventing.

I loved this book, which was written by Kathleen Pelley and illustrated by Michael Chesworth. I loved the character of Inventor McGregor with his bright red hair, glasses, and regular smile. He simply jumps off the page with enthusiasm and the reader is helpless to not get caught up in it. I found myself smiling through the whole first half of the book. The colors, which I believe are watercolor, make the early spreads bright and beautiful. We see the excitement of everyone in the village and the joy that seems to radiate out of the inventor’s house. The words practically bounce off the page in the first half. As an example, Pelley uses this line to describe Inventor McGregor’s day out in the field. “There he sang his snippet of a song, painted a picture, or twirled a whirl of a fling.”

This is all in the first half of the book though. On that very page that I referenced above we see darker clouds rolling in. Chesworth creates the transition in the book perfectly. When the Society of Inventors guys arrive it is raining. The trains into the city are dirty and depressing. We see one lonely red haired man peering out as he heads into the city. Where Hector used to be the epitome of energy, his arms now hang limp. He slumps more. There is a great two page spread that shows his frustration with trying to create. We see him in several different poses at his inventing desk, each a perfect character study of boredom. Pelley also makes the transition beautifully. Suddenly we go from wonderful descriptions of the fields to as few words as possible. And Pelley starts using words like shame, frown, and whispered. The words become slower and less descriptive. The pace of the book actually slows down…until he gets those paint brushes in his hands. Suddenly the colors are back, the descriptive words are back and the joy is back. We, along with Hector, feel the excitement of realizing what makes him happiest.

This was a fun book that made me so incredibly happy. I loved the transitions between the home and city environments. I loved the colors and the emotions that were so evident on our characters faces. I enjoyed the character of Inventor McGregor quite a bit. And more than anything I love how enthused I got after reading it. Like the inventor, I too wanted to paint and sing and create.

Friday, September 18, 2009

John Philip Duck

I don’t remember when I first heard the story of the ducks who live in the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, TN. The story originally goes that the owner and a buddy, who had just returned from a duck hunting trip were staying in the hotel. They decided for a lark to release some of the live decoy ducks they had into the fountain. It was an immediate hit with the patrons. The current bellman at the hotel (who also happened to be a former animal trainer) taught the ducks to walk on command. And ever since, the lobby of the Peabody Hotel has always been graced with ducks.

Apparently the story was a bit hit with Patricia Polacco as well. Polacco created John Philip Duck as a fictionalized account of how the birds got their origin. The story follows Edward, the son of the bellman at the Peabody, who finds a lost duck one day. He adopts the duck and takes care of it but with one hitch. He also works at the Peabody during the week. So for weeks on end he smuggles the duck into the hotel during the week and takes it home to the family farm on weekend. The staff at the hotel fall in love with the little duck. And over time Edward teaches the young duck to walk on cue. When he turns on a march by John Philip Sousa the duck will follow wherever Edward tells him. One day the hotel manager finds the duck and threatens to throw both Edward and the duck out. But the patrons love the little swimming duck. The manager must be convinced that the duck can obey though. So Edward trains him and some other live decoy ducks that are given to him, to walk on cue into the fountain. They are then to stay until he again turns on the march and they are to walk out. He manages to pull it off, and becomes Duckmaster for the Peabody Hotel.

This is an adorable story that takes a real-life history and fills in some of the cracks in the story. There appears to be little information about the original Duckmaster so Polacco creates a warm and caring character to fill the position. I actually enjoyed her idea of a foundling duck more than the idea that this was something thought up by drunken duck hunters. In this story we see how much Edward cares for the birds and works hard to make sure they will be able to live in the hotel. Even the touch of adding the John Philip Sousa marches makes the story a little more human. In actuality the original ducks were named after the owners. (all ducks after the original group have not been named) That said Polacco tries to stay as true to the tradition as possible. The ducks are always mallards, and include one male and three females. That is how they are portrayed in the book. Every morning and evening a red carpet is rolled out and the ducks are led in by the Duckmaster. She even beautifully captures the little fountain that is their home during the day.

The artwork on this book is just fantastic. Polacco uses watercolors and pencil to bring the hotel and its staff to life. The book opens with a couple colorful spreads of Edward’s parents farm. With tons of different colors and careful shading she creates beautiful rural scenes. The hotel scenes are less colorful and much more sparse. Many of the hotel scenes are done with more pencil than watercolor. That said Polacco captures her cast well, ducks and humans. With just a couple lines she creates a unique and interesting patrons, a whole cast of staff, and a very passionate young man. The ducks are drawn with an emphasis on color. I loved the idea behind this book and how well Polacco was able to pull it off. I guarantee children reading this book will want to know more about the luxury hotel that offers live ducks in their lobby. I even spent some time learning more about the tradition after reading this book. (Like how duck is not allowed to be served in the hotel restaurant) This is a wonderful story that tells a mostly accurate history.

The actual ducks at the Peabody and the fountain they live in.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Puddle

I’ve already talked about David McPhail’s Edward in the Jungle, but this past week I picked up his book The Puddle. These two books could not be more different. Where Edward was action packed and full of adventure, The Puddle is a softer quieter book with a lot of silliness mixed in. It is the type of story that I grew up with and for some reason I was reminded of the Little Bear series by Else Holmelund Minarik while reading it. The books are not similar but the tone that they were written in is. This is a quiet book about a simple thing that becomes extraordinary.

The story follows our narrator who wants to go out in the rain to sail his little sailboat. His mother agrees but tells him not to get wet or muddy. So he dresses up in his raincoat and goes out to a big puddle to sail his boat. Shortly after launching his boat, a frog comes along and steals it. He hops into the boat and refuses to bring it back near the shore. (did I mention it was a big puddle). Since the little boy can’t get wet, he cannot follow. Luckily an alligator shows up and offers to bring the boat back. He reclaims it from the frog but returns the boat with a bit of damage. But it doesn’t matter because right then a pig shows up wanting to go for a swim in the puddle. He jumps in and splashes the boy. But then an elephant comes along and wants a drink. She drinks up the whole puddle, and when the other animals yell at her, she spits it back out, drenching the animals and the boy. She leaves and the rain stops. The puddle dries up and everyone leaves. The boy goes home and is told to take a bath, where he finally gets to sail his sailboat in peace.

I’m not sure why this book seemed like a quiet little story to me with all the silliness that goes on. But somehow McPhail presents the tone as no big deal. And elephant arriving at the puddle is treated pretty matter-of-factly. In fact the interactions with all the animals is done very quietly. Even the frog bumping into a turtle or the alligator grabbing the sailboat is done with a softness. Part of this might be the illustrations. With the rainy day theme, McPhail uses mostly watercolors. There are often two smaller pictures on each page and the border of each image is not clearly defined. All the edges are soft often rounded. This gives the book a soft muted look. McPhail paints our narrator as a rather cute little boy who spends most of his time in a tiny rain slicker and what looks like a fireman’s hat. He is a nostalgic looking character and makes me think of growing up. But the animals are what really made this book wonderful for me. Each seems to have it’s own personality. The elephant is timid, the turtle serene, the frog is a bully, and the alligator is a big softie. A wonderful little story that seemed a throwback to older days. This book made me nostalgic and ultimately made me happy. A quiet little book that is perfect for rainy afternoon.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Roald Dahl

I spent yesterday afternoon curled up on the couch reading Going Solo, Roald Dahl's account of his time in Northern Africa and as a RAF pilot during World War II. I've read almost every book that Dahl has ever read but hadn't touched on his autobiographies. It was a wonderful account although not a children's book.

I was also shocked to read today that yesterday was Roald Dahl Day. The coincidence was just too amazing. Here I had picked up the book at a booksale on Saturday, started it that night, and read the majority of it on September 13th, the day Dahl was born. I know that in recent years, Dahl's work has become somewhat controversial. Parents seem to object to his rather dark, and sometimes vicious stories of children who outsmart adults. I have heard many people tell me that they don't let their child read Dahl. Too revolting, they say. His characters are mean. Or too strange.

I had The BFG read to me when I was in second grade. I had the greatest second grade teacher who read us some amazing books. I still remember sitting on the floor listening to the story of Sophie and her Big Friendly Giant. I loved the made-up words, the bizarre situation, and the silliness of the characters. It was the first chapter book I remember loving. I've gone on to read so many of Roald Dahl's books and haven't found one I haven't enjoyed. For all those parents out there, looking for something fun to read in a chapter book, I would recommend Roald Dahl. Yes Dahl is strange, yes he can be revolting, yes he can be vicious. But I have never read anything that have enchanted me as much as these books. Pick up any of his books. For me, they are all must-reads. And Happy Belated Roald Dahl Day!!!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Harold and the Purple Crayon

Today I'm celebrating a classic. I haven't even started going through my collection of children's books yet and doing reviews of those but I will. But this past week I finally picked up a copy of Crockett Johnson's immortal classic, Harold and the Purple Crayon. I can't even begin to tell you how much I love this book.

For those of you that have somehow missed this book, and I've met a surprising number, the simple story follows Harold on his nighttime adventures with a purple crayon. Harold decides to go for a walk in the moonlight but there is no moon. So he draws one...and a path to walk along. When he grows hungry he draws a picnic, and when he falls into his own sea, he draws a boat. Over and over the purple crayon and Harold create the world. He draws mountains and then climbs them. He creates a hot air balloon to go sailing in. And finally, when he's good and tired, he draws his room and his bed and goes to sleep.

If I had to pick one book that shows the power of imagination in a child's world, this would be it. We would play for hours as children with sticks and stones, creating elaborate worlds and this story reminds me of those games. With a plain white background, Crockett Johnson brings his character's world to life. There is so much joy and humor in this book. For example, when Harold gets lost trying to find his way home, he remembers to ask a police officer for help. So he draws a policeman and asks. Other than Harold everything is simply done. The sea is a squiggly line that Harold draws while shaking and stepping backward. The balloon is just a circle at first until Harold draws a basket. But even with the simplicity, or perhaps because of it, we are reminded of how much fun drawing used to be. This book reminds me how an imagination is the best toy a person can have.

I read this book to my girls at knitting this past week. Several of them had never heard it so we had storytime in the coffeehouse. I read and turned the pages and we laughed and giggled and ohhed and awwed. It was so much fun. I'm not surprised that this story, simple as it is, has stood the test of time. It is just too much fun.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Last Badge

My nephews are both in Cub Scouts. They enjoy the activities and hanging out with friends but they love to get badges. They go camping and learn new skills and sew those badges on to their sashes. They've collected quite a few from what I know. Although unlike the narrator in George McClements, I'm not sure whether they will collect them all. But this was so much more than just a story about scouts. It was a wonderful story whose ending captured my heart.

The story foll0ws Samuel Moss, a scout who is looking to make his family proud by collecting all the merit badges available. All the men in his family have been scouts and each has contributed to the "Album of Scouting Greatness". Samuel wants to be in the album badly and he decided that he needs to perform a great feat to get in. That is when he learns about the toughest possible badge to get, the "Moon Frog Badge." In order to get the badge you have to find the Moon Frog a very rare amphibian. In fact, the Moon Frog only appears once a year, under special circumstances, in a very specific spot. And to make things worse, nobody knows where this spot is. But Samuel is not discouraged. He reads up, researches, and calculates. And finally after moths of work, he finds the location where the moon frog will appear. He and his father set out to find the frog but when he gets to the spot, Samuel is faced with a choice that will effect whether or not he gets his badge. I won't tell you the ending mostly because it is a wonderful surprise that I can't bring myself to spoil.

This was a surprisingly cute story for me, even though I have never been a scout and never been interested in merit badges. Samuel is such a great character, one that we really want to succeed. He works hard to achieve his goal and make his family proud. But it was the ending that made me happiest. It was not just the dedication that Samuel put into finding the frog but the decisions that he has to make. I love that McClements has created a good upstanding young citizen who makes responsible choices. And he does it without being pedagogical. This is a fun story that children, particularly boys will enjoy. But the end makes a larger point.

If I enjoyed the story, the illustrations were icing on the cake. Using collage, digital art, paint, and plenty of silliness, McClements creates an energetic book that keeps the eyes moving. I sped through the book the first time, and then went back through to look at the illustrations a bit more. I was just hooked the first time, and the pacing of the illustrations makes this a quick read. The colors are bright and energetic. The collage work stands out, making those images the most memorable. The character of Samuel, who I assume is done digitally and with collage, is realistic and cartoony at the same time. He dresses like a real child but his large round head and huge mouth remind us me of animated characters. The Moon Frog is an interesting mix of color, ugly and silly at the same time. The book is an odd mix of illustrated images but somehow the hodgepodge of styles makes sense for the book. Very inventive.

This was a book I picked up but wasn't sure what to expect. I was pleasant surprised by the story, which included some very grown-up themes along with some silly images. McClements creates a great character with Samuel and I practically wanted to stand up and cheer at the end. A fun story, interesting images, and a pace that kept me hopping. Good find.

Fantastical Art

Originally published on Ancora Imparo.

Have you ever been introduced to an artist over and over? And each time you see his work you are amazed and impressed but still don't retain the name. I have been introduced to Tony Diterlizzi in various forms several times in the last couple years. I'm always awed by his detailed art and his depth of character. His characters show such a huge range of emotions. He has a very beautiful style of art but for some reason I am shocked every time I see his name. I not sure why I can't recognize his work instantly but I can't.

A couple years ago while digging around in my parent's children's book library I stumbled upon a version of The Spider and the Fly, the cautionary poem by Mary Howitt. The poem itself is fun and dark but the illustration in the book took my breath away. They were amazing. Funny and dark and detailed in a way I hadn't seen before. The spider oozed charm and menace. The fly, in her little flapper dress and hat, was the picture of flighty innocence. The ghosts, who tried to warn the fly, practically shimmered on the page. It was a beautiful book. At the time I noticed that it was done by Tony Diterlizzi but then promptly forgot.

The same is true when I read the first of the Spiderwick Chronicles. My nephew again brought me a book and told me that I had to read it. I read the first in an afternoon. I enjoyed the first book immensely but never followed on with the series. Most of you already know my aversion to series. The artwork inside was fun, and strangely enough reminded me of my old D&D artwork. I would later find out that Tony has done work for them too. Tony co-wrote the books with Holly Black. But again the name escaped me.

So this weekend I ended up at the library picking up tons of books on illustration and some children's books. I picked up The Dangerous Alphabet which I'll have to talk about later. (that one needs its own post). But one the illustration books I picked up was "The Art of Reading", a book put out to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Reading is Fundamental program. In the book, well-loved authors and illustrators talk about the books that made them love reading. They also draw a picture from the book. It is a wonderful book that I have been reading through voraciously. But what really caught my eye was a picture of a little pig. It was the third or fourth page in and this little pig is picking flowers. Simple little illustration but the emotion on this little pig is both laughable and sad at the same time. It is such an incredibly cute creature. So I look at the artist signature and of course it is Tony Diterlizzi. Of course.

I went to his website and was completely bowled over. I've seen so much of this man's work and didn't realize it. I would seriously recommend heading over for a little bit. Not only is that little pig there (in the art section), but Tony offers a ton of nice downloads and wallpapers along with sketches and finished pages from his books. He's even recorded a couple little videos for each page. I think I clicked on each page a couple of times just to hear the different videos. Funny stuff. I own The Spider and Fly. Now I just have to buy the rest. Beautiful. And from now on, I'll remember this name.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Huge Harold

I hadn't reviewed any Bill Peet books for the blog and the absence was starting to get to me. Bill Peet is best known as a story man for the Disney company but during that time he also managed to write a ton of books for children. He worked on films like 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, Dumbo, and Alice in Wonderland. His children's stories are He has got to be one of my favorite authors and illustrators. I compare him with Gene Zion and Don Freeman, masters of stories with warm wonderful illustrations and likable characters.

Huge Harold is about a rabbit named Harold who grows up way too much. He becomes several times larger than any other rabbit. His parents are forced to send him away with the statement that he won't be safe with them. So Harold sets off but he quickly discovers that he's not safe in the woods after he is chased by foxes in weasels. He tries to stay in a garden but the farmer discovers him and starts chasing him. Harold eventually finds himself in an old abandoned house but even that won't work after he is discovered. He is chased by hunters all through the fall and eventually in the winter, decides to take shelter in a barn. The farmer who finds him does not chase him off. Instead he feeds Harold good food and takes care of him. Harold is suspicious that he is being fattened up for rabbit stew but the farmer has a different plan. He teaches Harold to pull a cart and wins horse races with him. From then on Harold is adored as the rabbit as big as a horse.

The story is wonderfully warm and I loved the character of Harold. He is a sweet rabbit that just can't seem to fit in. He is often sad and constantly tired and hungry but he is just so cute that I could look past even his flashes of pessimism. The text is rhyming with a simple couplet rhyme scheme. "So he spotted a hide-out and with a big hop, He came plopping down in a leafy treetop. This fooled the hunters and also their dogs, Who sniffed round the tree trunk and peeked into logs." The writing is silly in places and the rhyme actually does a lot to keep us from getting depressed. Harold is often despairing and regularly makes remarks about not being able to go on. Originally I was surprised about this but the sadness just makes the big rabbit an underdog and we root for him all the harder.

The illustration are classic Bill Peet. Using colored pencil and tons of shading Peet is able to created characters that spring to live. I love the goofy grin on the face of Harold as he is happily munching away on the lettuce in one farmer's garden (not the cover image though). It certainly makes up for the number of scared or sad poses that Harold has to take. One image, of Harold sitting by a pond, is enough to break your heart. There is so much emotion in every page of this book, most of it on the part of the giant rabbit. We see his excitement, his sadness, his exhaustion, and his pride. This illustrations, like most of Peet's work, is just filled to the brim with heart. This is one of my favorite Bill Peet's and truly one of my favorite books.